Behind the Yellow Jumpsuit: A Retrospective of April O’Neil

april o'neil in the 1987 tv show, wearing a headset

Who is April O’Neil? As the entirely unnecessary new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film floods theaters this month, the sassy reporter and number one mutant turtle documentarian is once again in our cultural consciousness. But while the turtles themselves have stayed relatively locked into their identities over the years—Michelangelo has been, and will always be, a party dude—portrayals of April O’Neil shift with each retelling of the classic turtle tale.  

April O’Neil was introduced in the second issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a small-run comics series that went on to spawn the enormous TMNT franchise. Thirty years have passed since that issue landed. During that time, April has played the only consistent female foil to the wildly popular narrative focused on the antics of teenage boy ninjas. April began her journey as a scientist’s assistant, existed for several incarnations as an ambitious TV news journalist, dropped ten years to become an amalgam blogging-teenage-scientist’s-daughter in 2012 and finally, in the new Michael Bay film, shoots back into her late twenties as an undervalued TV reporter scientist daughter with permanent sex face. Her incarnations are vast and sometimes contradictory but her iconic yellow outfits draw a line, collapsing multiple versions of one woman under a single name.

the cover of the TMNT comics

April O’Neil’s character birth is, from a feminist perspective, disappointing. Looking at the cover of TMNT #2 it appears that April was brought into the mix to fill a noticeable void of side boob. I’d heard that April’s character started out as a scientist’s assistant who could help the turtles thwart her dastardly boss. This now strikes me as a nice fantasy. Although she is referred to, once, as an assistant, April’s narrative purpose is definitely someone to whom the evil scientist can explain his evil scientist plot. Once appropriately frightened, April becomes the character who runs in fear from the scientist’s robots. Claims that April helps take down her boss are also without substance. The turtles save her while she bemoans that everyone is doomed.

a still from the comic shows April saying "there's nothing we can do."

April’s activities in subsequent issues involve getting new hairstyles, complaining about her hairstyles, and reacting to Shredder destroying her apartment. But the eleventh issue in the run is refreshingly April-centric—as April and the turtles retreat to an upstate New York farm, the issue is filled with her handwritten diary commentary. It was this issue that really opened my eyes to April O’Neil’s existence as a peripheral first person character.

the cover of the comic book features april o'neil looking thoughtful

Her diary entries focus on how the turtle gang is dealing with all the violence they’ve recently witnessed at the metallic hands of Shredder. It’s an interesting side-story in a series that usually deal with destruction and fighting without any focus on the emotional impacts of violence. I can honor the importance of the issue’s focus on trauma and PTSD because those are realistic consequences of violence. I’m also willing to argue that admitting your fears and processing them is badass. I just wish it were more interesting. The fault for the fact that this issue depicts April’s inner monologue as intensely boring falls directly onto the writers who use her purely as a device to observe the central male characters and have rounded her personality out predominantly with crying. As the issue ends, April walks contemplatively through the snowy woods, and abruptly falls through thin lake ice. Luckily a turtle is nearby. We have returned to clumsy, helpless April continuity. 

Original comic book creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird have complained about how much control they lost when making the 1987 animated television show. But this series, when April O’Neil donned her yellow jumpsuit, is where she really begins to shine.

four shots of April O'Neil in the 1987 TV show

In the first episode of the animated show, April is introduced as she runs down a sewer tunnel, escaping some Foot Clan henchmen as she says to herself, “This is great! I must really be onto something hot if they’re trying to kill me!”  Go, hard-nosed reporter, go! However, she then promptly runs into a wall so hard that she knocks herself unconscious. When she awakes, she’s surrounded by the enemy. Luckily, a turtle is nearby. As the turtle crew saves her, she promptly faints. I have grown to view this fainting situation as unavoidable. When April awakens, though, her damsel-in-distress role is nicely reversed: the turtles ask for her help researching the Foot Clan. She promises to look up everything she can about the ninja gang on her network’s computers, but, “Only if you get me my story!” 

I remembered the 1987 TV show April as a character who is perpetually kidnapped and annoying. But upon rewatching the show in anticipation of the new film, it turns I remembered her incorrectly. 1987 TV show April is great! Perhaps my childhood self was not ready to accept an April that is just as strong as the turtles but in a different, less escapist manner. This April rarely relies on the turtles and is often skeptical of their plans. April delivers jokes—often about needing a shower—with an easy confidence. In a way, this permutation of April O’Neil have given me a stronger appreciation of nuance. This is the same story as before: April is slamming into walls and fainting. But if played as streetwise, her character has strength.

Then we get to 1990’s film April O’Neil, who was adapted heavily from this television version.

The movie version of April O'Neil has huge hair and a tough fashion sense

In the classic ‘90s TMNT films, April is a 28-year-old older sister role model who lets the turtles stay at her apartment even as her apartments are continually destroyed. She’s afraid of rats and wears a yellow raincoat in a campy way but also shoots back retorts at every sexist remark on her radar. While rewatching the ‘90s films, I realized that the turtles all revere April because she is a savvy woman of the world. Splinter, the turtles’ rat sensei, defers to April not merely out of chivalry but because he hopes she will continue to accept and help educate his sons.

I’m not all lusty for April/turtle pairings (see Raphril and Apriltello) because, interspecies relationships aside, I don’t view the turtles as April’s peer. The turtles are stronger physically but their prowess as ninjas and respective specializations (leadership, science, sarcasm, partying) don’t make them adults. Explicitly, in the title, they’re teenagers. I think there’s an unspoken current running through all the TMNT franchises that April has something to teach the turtles. She can explain the world to them. The way that this stays unspoken, though, is an oppressive aspect of the continuing story.

Between the beginning of turtle time and now there have been at least two more animated TV shoes, a live action TV show, a regular TMNT stage performance, and several movies of dubious quality. The 2012 Nickelodeon CGI series is worthy of mentioning. It has that has amassed a sizable following of loyal fans and boasts a teenage Mary Sue style April, capable of blogging, scientific deduction, ninjutsu, and creepy mind powers.

the current cgi incarnation of April O'Neil has her as a teen side-by-side with the turtles

I welcome this April as a ninja hero in her own right. Most importantly, recent developments in the show focus on the turtles appreciating and thanking April for saving their lives. That’s thirty years of progress. Break out the champagne!

A dramatic rewind from this moment is present in the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle film. April (Megan Fox) doesn’t even get to drive the TV van in this film. That responsibility is regulated to April’s smarmy cameraman Vernon (Will Arnett). In the new film, Vernon is not constantly harassing April’s or trying to snipe her job. Instead he’s a nice, dorky guy doing his best to help April/ask her out. That’s an interesting character read that makes me feel a little gas lighted. Is this a chauvinist read on male sexism? “Oh, he’s just a dorky guy that’s intimidated by you. Why does the nice guy never get the girl? Boo hoo.” 

At the beginning of the film, I wanted to give Megan Fox’s April O’Neil a shot. She was wearing a yellow hoodie and riding a bicycle over the Brooklyn Bridge. She had old, peeling stickers stuck on her bike helmet. For a moment I thought, “Oh shit, April O’Neil is me.”

Megan Fox as April O Neil, riding a bike.

But that didn’t last long. I began to notice that every scene Fox acted in, she was playing a character playing a character. This is something Megan Fox readily admits to. She’s trying to do a Marilyn Monroe thing. I support Megan Fox in her acting experiments but in this instance it comes off as a person with a curled-up lip and sex eyes reacting to everything the same way. When she was hiding and trying to sneak up on The Foot, I kept thinking, “What is going on with her face? Is April going to make out with this subway pillar? Why is she orgasmically weak about this garbage can?” 

Megan Fox as April O'Neil

This April has none of the same autonomy and bullshit detection of previous April O’Neils. How did woman like Megan Fox’s character even grow up in New York City? She follows male characters around blithely like, “This guy will help me! This guy is my friend.” At one point she’s at a fundraiser gala, staring adoringly at a CEO, and I thought that it was too bad that a generation of young guys will watch this movie. The stereotype about money and power making women shower men in adoration is not a good thing for guys to be internalizing.

So anyway, the new TMNT is a high-octane daddy issues nonsense bath. Even my love for Will Arnett couldn’t save it.

When a character is reinvented this many times with this many inconsistencies, it’s difficult to make a real decision about what she stands for. Like many franchised characters, April O’Neil wears different personalities when brought to life by different writers and actors. I could argue that this makes her feel even more human. She goes through changes. But, as a TMNT fan, I think it’s fair to say that a survey of April O’Neil can represent various attempts by media to write a token female character. Here are 30 years of the struggles present in our culture as we salsa back-and-forth, ignorant of the idea that the story could focus on any narrative other than the dudes’. I’m encouraged that the current Nickelodeon series has finally let her into the plot. Isn’t that what April O’Neil has always been asking for? Give her a story and let her into the action.

Related Reading: Tina Belcher’s Sexual Revolution. 

Suzette Smith writes about culture, comics, and film. She has pledged herself to the super volcano and is trying to think up a good outfit for that— not too traditional but still a clean, classic design. Follow her on tumblr and on twitter @suzettesmith.

by Suzette Smith
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Suzette Smith is a culture writer and comics artist living in Portland, OR. Follow her on twitter @suzettesmith.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

What about the 2003 April?!

You totally looked past the '03 April! I believe she really came into her own in that series. She even learned ninjitsu by the end of the series and kept up her science-y ways later on. It also had a few more female characters than usual.

Though the '14 April seems more developed I think she's severey sidelined in her own story. She's rarely ever a part or a focus on her dad's rescue and not to mention the kinda creepy Donatello "nice guy" flirting.

I actually agree with most of

I actually agree with most of your article (although I view classic April as more of a mother figure than an older sister), but I have a bit of a problem with your closing paragraph. The TMNT franchise is fundamentally aimed at young boys. Why shouldn't it focus on the dudes? In fact, I would turn the question right back at you: why are we always having to inject a female perspective into media that is not, at its core level, intended for a female audience? Why must April O'Neil be our viewpoint character in a story that is not actually about April O'Neil? Why not Splinter? Why not Casey Jones? Why not the Turtles themselves? Why must it be a girl?

I don't write blog posts petitioning for Ken to become the main viewpoint character of Barbie. I haven't taken to Twitter to insist that the writers of Sophia the First make their male characters actually act like men. I have four nieces ages eight or under, so I've been inundated with a heavy amount of these types of shows for the last several years. I don't like them at all, but I recognize that they're not for me, and for the most part, I leave them alone (although I do make comments when I watch them with my nieces, sometimes). I know that my nieces will grow out of them eventually (my older nieces already have, actually). I don't feel the need to "change" what these shows are about, and my brothers, who are the fathers of these girls, agree. But women aren't this way. Women see something they don't like about what men are doing, and they decide to "change" it. Almost inevitably these days, this change involves making the men act more like women and the women act more like men. It's tiresome, and it has gotten to a point where it infests practically every form of media out there. How many tv shows on prime time today actually target men as the main demographic? And companies wonder why their ratings are failing and people are cutting the cord!

Those of you who are proud to call yourselves bitches, answer me this: what is so fundamentally wrong about a boys' club? Why can't boys just have a boys' show without all this meddling female interference?

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